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Breathing life into forgotten communities

Rehabs restore historic houses for new families during Build-a-Thon 2012 in Los Angeles, Calif.
By Soyia Ellison

 


Leah O’Bryant (left) and Ellen Ginda are spending the week rehabbing a stucco house in South Gate. Photo by Jess Koehler

 


South Gate Mayor Bill DeWitt stopped by the build site Monday to thank the AmeriCorps members. He’s lived in the neighborhood since 1965. Photo by Jess Koehler

 


AmeriCorps members get to work rehabbing a house on the corner of Peach and Cedar streets in Lynwood. Photo by Jess Koehler

   

Five days, five houses — that’s the plan here in L.A., where the AmeriCorps Build-a-Thon has entered week two.

We’re not starting from scratch, however. The five houses under construction this week have long histories — at least one dates back to 1931 — but all of them have seen better days.

Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles bought the houses after they fell into foreclosure and are restoring them into safe, comfortable places where future generations can make memories.

“New construction is great,” Mark Van Lue, the chief operating officer of Habitat L.A., told the 60-plus AmeriCorps members who gathered at Sunday night’s opening ceremonies, “but rehab is resurrecting something that’s basically dead and forgotten.”

So early Monday morning the AmeriCorps team donned matching red T-shirts and headed out to five sites scattered across the cities of Lynwood and South Gate to begin breathing life into dying properties.

They installed bathroom sinks, laid insulation and dug holes for fence posts. They coated walls with primer, removed bars from windows and cut lengths of molding for baseboards — and they made it seem fun.

In a narrow stucco house in South Gate, five young women with paint-spattered hair sang along to Third Eye Blind’s “Jumper” as they covered the living room ceiling with primer.

Down the hall, Ellen Ginda and Leah O’Bryant worked on the walls of the laundry room and tried to put into words why they’re devoting a year of their lives to AmeriCorps and Habitat.

Ginda, a construction supervisor at the Portland affiliate, talked about the little moments that mean so much.

Recently, while building a fourplex in Portland, she struggled to explain the simple task of nailing plywood to a wall to a pair of families whose first language isn’t English. When the two sets of future homeowners finally grasped what she wanted them to do, they knocked out the job in five minutes — and celebrated with hugs and high fives.

“They’re going to be the best neighbors because they shared that,” she said.

O’Bryant, who works in the family services department of the Portland affiliate, said she’s been struck by the fact that while every family’s story is different, they all have one thing in common: they want to create a better life for their children.

“There’s something really special about that.”

Later in the day, a special guest dropped by the house to offer his thanks: South Gate Mayor Bill DeWitt.

DeWitt has been a South Gate resident since 1965. He took office in 1980 — the year Ronald Reagan became president and years before most of the AmeriCorps team members were born.

In that time, DeWitt has seen a generation of homeowners die off. Many of them were replaced by absentee landlords who rented out the houses to people who felt no real connection to the community. He’s thrilled that Habitat is helping to restore his city’s neighborhoods to what they once were.

“Thank you very much for helping out the city of South Gate,” he told the team as they lunched in the shady back yard of a nearby renovated house. “If we work together on things, we can make a difference.”

Everyone applauded, and then they went back to doing exactly that.